Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Meaningless: the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Image result for imaginarium parnassus

I finally saw this cult classic of Terry Gilliam and Heath Ledger's final half-performance. Like all my reviews, spoilers abound, so placing this below the cut.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Infinity Thoughts

So Avengers Infinity War happened. I enjoyed the experience of seeing it. But there's nothing interesting to say about it because while it has workmanlike quality, it's just too incoherent.

Image result for thanos

I'll at least explain why below the spoiler cut.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Pacific Rim Thread

In honor of Pacific Rim 2 coming out, I've compiled the fantastic SMG responses on the SomethingAwful thread about Pacific Rim 1. It's a great discussion of fascism and nearby ideologies, Christian symbolism, mecha anime and kaiju cinema, film techniques, and fascism's root as an artistic movement.

It's also useful for interpreting Del Toro's other work, such as his Oscar Best Picture win for "Shape of Water." As SMG points out, all of GDT's movies are about "Nazis fighting monsters."

<<<Everything from this point on is by SuperMechaGodzilla and not by me.>>>

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Cloverfield and Bad Critiques of Capitalism

You may have heard that Netflix did a cute publicity stunt this week, by showing the very first advertisement for the big budget movie "the Cloverfield Paradox" with a Super Bowl commercial, and telling fans... that they could watch as soon as the game was over. Just surf over to Netflix and there it would be.

According to mainstream/hip/progressive media journalism, this was the oncoming of the capitalism apocalypse.


People who'd been following the progress of a third movie, sometimes referred to as God Particle or simply Untitled Cloverfield Project, might have sensed something was up when Paramount kept playing release-date musical chairs with it, moving it from February 2017 to October 2017, then February 2nd, 2018 ... then April 20th, 2018. And even these eagle-eyed watchers might have breezed past The Hollywood Reporter story in mid-January that hinted at Netflix being in talks to acquire the property, rumored to be in even rougher shape than previously imagined. At which point, the service thought: We can get this for a song. How do you save an unintentional suckfest? You turn it into a surprise event. That unveiling during the Super Bowl, part callback and part cryptic little sneak peek, is the sort of marketing coup that deserves an eternal slow-clap. 
That's one way of looking at it, of course. Another way is that they've simply found a cutting-edge way to pull the oldest trick in the promotional book. When Ms. Knowles pioneered the surprise-album drop, she relied on old-school codes of omerta and a new technological infrastructure that suddenly allowed you to go from studio to iTunes in a click. If it's not the new norm, it was certainly a bold new business model, one applicable to the right combination of name recognition and supply/demand economics. Thanks to Netflix, which pays lip service to the theatrical-release model even as it seems hellbent on cutting it off at the knees, the film industry may now have its equivalent infrastructure for such moves as well. As an experiment in attracting attention, cost-benefit economics and dodging a flop-film bullet, this is a huge win. 
For people who care about the quality of movies, including big blockbuster ones, and who will never get that 102 minutes back, however, this is not being Beyoncé-ed. It's the art of being P.T. Barnum-ed. At which point we can only look straight into the camera, fix the service with our best fretting Gugu Mbatha-Raw look, and solemnly intone:
"Whatever you're doing, Netflix: Stop."

If you read the whole article, you'll get a lot of moralizing about how scammy this approach is, but extremely little commentary on what makes the movie bad. There's just widespread assumption that you WOULD use this release method for a flop, and the author doesn't know anyone who liked it, so it must be an objectively bad movie that the executives knew would be bad.

For people who care about the quality of movies... maybe you could discuss the quality of this movie. Maybe criticize the dialogue, or pacing, or CGI, or anything?

So I actually watched it. And it's... fine. It's space-horror, with a big budget, and some good actors, and an attempt to use the genre to talk about how we deal with decisions we regret. It's not as brilliant as Event Horizon or Solaris or Alien, but it is well within the same genre that brought us LIFE or Aliens.

(It also features a black woman in the lead role, which I keep being told Hollywood never does outside movies with a political bent.)

This is not me saying "all movies are good and the movies critics call bad are actually camp classics." Paradox doesn't even aspire to that level of art. It's just a perfectly middlebrow horror scifi movie with a few JJ Abrams style touches. There's nothing in here that would make a studio executive say "Wow we've got one hell of a turd here, how do we unload it?"

Not to mention the weird paranoia that Netflix is trying to pull a fast one and trick people into watching a movie they should be warned from. For most of the audience, they're already subscribers and Netflix made no money from. It probably got a few new subscribes from this, but really a subscription service is the opposite of what payment system is trying to "sneak one past" consumers.


The closest we get to actual criticism is resentment at the teasing of Abrams world-building.
A large shadow appears and then there's that mystifying roar. A child is found, and saved, and only kinda sorta mentioned again. Then, at the very end of all this, right before the credits, a giant monster appears, some sort of variation on the original Cloverfield kaiju. See? It really is all connected. Cinema!
Which is reflected in other reviews, that they were really hoping this movie would answer some of the questions of what is going on in the "Cloververse." Just what is that big monster?

And, no. Just no. I have zero pity for anyone seeking that.

There is an argument for enjoying world-building as it's own thing. Balioc will be better able to defend that than I, but people feel they get value from reading it, and I won't say there wasn't value there.

But that is entirely different from demanding worldbuilding as the satisfaction from a work of art or author who has no intention of giving it. From the very beginning Cloverfield was about the mystery and the unknowable. Abrams has done this in most of his high profile works. And the second movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane, did not try to make anything clearer.

What the hell were you expecting from Cloverfield 3? The monster was Rey's father?


And if he did, you would be merely disappointed.

But with an obsessive focus on this reveal, his movies are criticized not for being bad, so much as his "cheap" tactics of being unwilling to give us the answers we need. Paradox was a flop in their mind because it didn't tell us what the monster was.

Abrams is withholding his jouissance, and this Netflix stunt is a way of tricking us into watching the movie without receiving the jouissance. "Whatever you're doing, Stop."


Which brings us back to this sort of popular-media Jacobin style critiques of capitalism. They take this woke posture, defending consumers from the evil tricks of Corporations, but are entirely empty of actual anti-capitalist theory. It's not about looking at the relationships between workers and production, or sharing the vast wealth our world has with the poorest, but just "you are unhappy and lets blame corporations for it. I don't understand art, so it must be the fault of profit-seekers who COULD give me what I wanted, if they weren't such jerks." It's banal and terrible and not Marxism.

Trashing a movie and fretting over a publicity stunt do not make you warriors for economic justice, RollingHuffStonePost.


Updated with SMG's take:
To do that, you first need to reverse-engineer the film to understand why The God Particle was made in the first place. Like why, at some point, did multiple people think this was a great idea for a movie?
If you actively ignore the extremely poor storytelling and exposition, God Particle actually has a very good concept for a horror movie:
The idea is that there are two parallel universes - the peace universe and the war universe. In the war universe, the space station gets sabotaged and crashes into the ocean, where the survivors are now in a fierce battle for survival.
Because of the experiment, the two universes cross over at random points - and the people from the peace universe naturally experience these crossovers as eruptions of nightmare imagery.
The most obvious example of this is when the airlock suddenly gets flooded with a ton of water - from the ocean. Air from the peace universe is being switched with water from the bad universe, and vice-versa. The Russian guy’s eye is going weird because half of his brain has been exchanged with the brain of his war-universe counterpart.
So basically there’s this entire parallel storyline where the offscreen people of the war universe figure out what’s going on, and start sending messages to the peace universe. The disembodied arm is actually connected to the Italian on the other side - so people in the war universe are basically watching their Italian crawl around on the floor while a disembodied arm floats around the room, flipping them off. The war people use this knowledge to send things like the compass through - they obviously discovered, from the worm incident, that the Russian’s stomach is the location of one of the portals. (As for how the war universe’s Russian guy ended up swallowing a ton of worms, I guess that’s left to the imagination.)
Basically everything not directly related to this narrative was added to promote the Cloverfield franchise. And it seems obvious that a lot of stuff was cut out to make it fit.
The charitable take is that the shitty ending is a probably-unintentional reference to Watchmen.
After the opening scene badly establishes the rise of nationalistic tensions and the threat of nuclear war breaking out, the utopian end-of history conclusion is accompanied by the promise/threat of a new, inhuman terrorist enemy against which we can unite. Hence the specific image of Clover - the 9/11 Kaiju par excellence. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Rashomon Analysis

I'm very slowly going through the canon of classic movies - one that pushed the bounds of the medium and have come to Kurosawa's Rashomon. This one I've heard of since junior high, and it's fabled treatment of "subjective truth" was so right up my alley I didn't bother watching it.

What I knew of it (and what you probably knew) is that it shows a tragic sex crime through multiple perspectives, revealing the difference in how it looked to different people involved. I assumed it would provide expiation for the assailant, showing how they thought what they did was fine.

Turns out I was pretty wrong about that. Spoilers below the cut.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Bright Christmas

For everyone off and killing time on this December 25th, go to Netflix and check out the new Will Smith vehicle "Bright."

This blog already has strong policy in favor of Will Smith, whose movies depict the reality of class degradation. But despite the inevitable "Bad Boys meets Suicide Squad" references bad critics make, it's a lot more like "the language and stylings of Training Day" and "in a setting 2000 years after Lord of the Rings."

Almost every respectable critic hates it, so I'm going to throw you to my favorite absurdist twitter who live blogged the movie.

I 100% agree with him.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review Types: Food and Therapy

Reading reactions to Justice League made me realize there are two ways of reviewing movies, in terms of the logic they present.

The most popular, and often mocked, is movies as food. You know the type “Sometimes I want an expensive steak, but hey, sometimes I want a fast food cheeseburger, and this movie was a good cheeseburger.” There’s plenty of snark about that specific metaphor, but the logic behind it is less absurd and worth critiquing.

In this sense, what matters in the movie is the ingredients. We’re asking “is the movie good?” and the determinant of that is “Were quality ingredients put together using a known recipe?” If a movie isn’t good, it’s just because you can point to one ingredient and say it’s bad. The pacing was bad, the writing was saccharine, or the director is overrated. Such reviews are not a discussion of how different elements work together to produce something, but just operate on the assumption that if one of the ingredients is bad, that explains why the whole thing is worse. Or in the positive direction, a review will tell us the actors have good chemistry, that the CGI is seamless, the director is hip and capable of working with politically challenging themes - though not how any of these elements interact, beyond goodness multiplying with goodness.

This all points towards a very mass produced view of art. After all, that’s how we think of hamburgers, right? Once you’ve figured out how to make hamburgers, well then, just keep getting good ingredients, put them together the way you know how, and viola, you reliably have a finished product that will please as much as the first time.

If you liked Iron Man 1, well then Spiderman: Homecoming has the exact same quality ingredients, why wouldn’t you like it.

(The moral public image and political leanings of the stars of the film, are just one more ingredient these days that adds to its goodness or badness.)

Empirically, the philosophy doesn’t really work (or else churning out box office successes would be as simple as running McDonalds), but it’s still the basis for almost all professional reviews. It’s just easier to understand.

I'm lazy and examples of these are everywhere, so here's a random Justice League review from Rotten Tomatoes: http://www.screenit.com/ourtake/2017/justice_league.html

The good news is that those behind the scenes finally figured out that audiences of superhero movies prefer them not to be as morose, grim and humorless as most of DC Comics latest offerings, and like them having a little Marvel style humor thrown into the mix. I can't say if the late in production replacement of original director Zack Snyder with Joss Whedon (due to a family tragedy for the former) had anything to do with that change, but it's a welcome one that greatly benefits the offering. 
I'd wager there's more humor in this single film than all of its immediate predecessors combined, and much of that stems from Ezra Miller showing up to play the hyperactive, lightning bolt activated The Flash character. Much like Quicksilver in the "X-Men" movies, he zips along at high speed (thus making everyone else seem frozen in a freeze frame collage), resulting in some similarly fun scenes. But his naive eagerness and interaction with others are what makes him stand out. 
Jason Momoa gets some less hyper moments of humor playing the loner surfer dude type Aquaman character, but it's the presence of Gal Gadot reprising her Wonder Woman character that truly saves the day...and the film. The actress is so natural and comfortable in the part and the character is so powerful (above and beyond the physical) that you simply can't take your eyes off her, and the film really excels whenever she's present. Ray Fisher is okay as the part-human, part machine Cyborg character, but isn't explored enough to make him that interesting. Ben Affleck seems tired and ready to hang up the caped crusader character (which sort of parallels his Bruce Wayne alter-ego), and a character from past films makes a return (guess who) and livens up the proceedings in the third act. 
Which is a good thing as both the villain (Ciarán Hinds, heavily assisted by CGI) and his plot (assembling some powerful boxes to destroy the world) aren't anything worth writing home about. Many of these films really fail to create compelling antagonists and this is yet another prime example. As a result, you're not as invested in watching him get his comeuppance that you automatically know is going to involve lots of CGI heavy, multiple character fight sequences where too much is occurring and looks fake up on the screen. 
Thankfully, the return of that one significant character along with the presence of Gadot, Miller and Marvel-like humor makes most of the film easy and sometimes quite entertaining to watch. I would have preferred a more compelling story (rather than the usual end of the world material), better villain and less reliance on special effects. But enough of the pic works, even considering its various issues, to earn a recommendation. "Justice League" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.


At the other end of the spectrum we have looking at movies… like a therapy session.

You would not say about therapy: the client was very charismatic, and the story of their childhood had excellent pacing, but the lighting was flat and boring. B+.

Instead of grading it at all, we’d discuss how the elements (which might be awkward on their own) worked together to say something larger. “The way the client stuttered while talking about his mother,” says one thing, and “the fact that the client brings up academic success at any opportunity” says another. We find meaning both in the plain content of their utterances, and the details around the way they are delivered. The result isn’t good or bad, but it’s interpretable.

This is where the Group 3 type of film critique (and most academic work) ends up. The type of acting (flat, naturalist, manic, sensual) is seen as a filter on the words said and the plot elements. A director’s history is seen as context for themes they deal with in this work. How does the beginning of the session/movie compare to where things are at the end - are things the same, are there important changes, and what does that say about the nature of the problem the characters were struggling to solve?

Sure the movie is ugly (or the client is disruptive.) What does that tell us? In what ways is it ugly, and how can those be seen as deliberate choices?

Compare the above Rotten Tomatoes to people deciphering David Lynch's Twin Peaks, which emphasizes various unpleasant aspects to tell us how they comment on the broader work. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/david-lynchs-late-style/#!
Lynch holds on this scene for an uncomfortable amount of time, lavishing seven cuts and nearly a minute of footage on Mr. C’s tactile show of dominance, the effect of his gesture passing from intimidation to a strange kind of tenderness, registering the tragic feeling of the strong for the weak they nonetheless mean to exploit. We later find out that Jack gets murdered in this scene, but we never see the act take place. His death, we feel, is already written in the lines of this gruff but malleable face, the skin gone slack, vulnerable, now just an unresisting sculptural material for the dark forces that menace and shape it. In this gloriously inexpressive pause, Mr. C seems to be asking himself: what can this goony, docile face be made to sing? 
In many ways, this long squeeze is perfectly representative of the oblique, beguiling aesthetic of the new Twin Peaks. It is not only that the pace is so exquisitely slow or that the scene’s narrative purpose is unclear. We are also left to wonder about the spotlight of lyrical dread lavished upon a character so soon to disappear from the story, just as we may be disarmed by the proliferation of arresting minor characters, stray images, and tangential action throughout the series. 
Lynch has always had a way of elevating peripheral performances to derail our sense of narrative logic (think of the man in Wild at Heart who quacks like a duck, or the inexplicable presence of anthropomorphic rabbits in Inland Empire). But no work of Lynch’s has been so gloriously digressive as Twin Peaks: The Return, nor has any work of his been so elliptical or so unforgivingly distracted by the characters, images, and scenes that seem to exist to the side of its story line. In this, the series embraces a narrative style that is arguably even more inventive and jarring than the narrative itself, with its baroque mythology of lodges, personified evil, and interdimensional rabbit holes. 
The new season challenges us most in the way it seems to undo the story it is telling, moving out of sequence and perversely out of rhythm, indicating a wealth of paths it has no interest in going down, spending long stretches of time in scenes that do not immediately further the plot, and jumping without warning from characters and locales we know to those we don’t (and never come to know). The result is a feeling of erratic, transfixing chaos. A greasy drug-addled woman sits in the Roadhouse talking with her friend about zebras and penguins, scratching the “wicked rash” in her armpit. A woman frantically honking her horn screams at Deputy Briggs to let her car through traffic because, as she puts it with incredible and hideous fury, “We’re laaaaaate!” while a diseased young girl lurches from the passenger seat, vomiting a dark trickle of green slime. A young girl waiting for a friend at the Roadhouse is removed from her booth by two grown men, drops to her knees in the middle of a concert, and crawls through the crowd of dancers before screaming at the top of her lungs. In any other series — even the original series of Twin Peaks — these scenes would have consequences: they’d be explained or taken up again or at least referred to in passing later on, in order incorporate them into the larger plot. In Lynch’s hands, they are left only as refractory trace variations of the show’s central action.

This way, every movie becomes a complex inkblot, a source for endless analysis and conclusions that are both more and less than “good, bad, should I see it.” This view has its flaws as well (such as the reader bringing so much subjective baggage to their interpretation that they can’t really provide useful information for anyone else) but the point is how different it is, and why it’s valuable to keep this attitude in your toolkit.

(This is not the same thing as SECRET MESSAGES delivered through a film, like explaining how random names are actually references to some historical event, a la a Wizard of Oz being about the gold standard, or Room 237 about The Shining. These sort of fan conspiracy theories aren't really substantive, anymore than if you believed your therapy client could best be interpreted by taking the first word of every anecdote, and stringing them together to find out their message from their Russian spymasters.)

The therapy mode is much more engaging with the Real of the work, picking up on random details and incorporating them. As I mentioned with Justice League, few of the professional reviews that wanted to tell us whether it was “humorless” or “grim” or not, said anything about the fact that the first minute is nothing but a diagetic paean to Superman, let alone what the meaning of that choice of introduction was. When you read a therapy review, at least you see the elements the critic is talking about - when you read a food-type review, you might wonder “did she even watch the movie?”